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Need to Boost Employee Retention? Make Work Meaningful Again

20 Mar
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In the world of sports, we honor and recognize the most valuable players. If a team wins a national championship, players take home a trophy, earn positive media coverage about their achievements and are celebrated with parades. In the world of work, not so much. Let’s face it, rockstars at work, whether they excel at flipping burgers or making customers smile, don’t always get the recognition they deserve.

A Gallup research report found that 36% of employees identified lack of recognition as a major reason for quitting a job.1 When employees don’t feel recognized, that can lead to high rates of disengagement. In today’s fast-moving job market, that disengagement has contributed to the trend of quiet quitting, and managers are struggling to retain their best employees.

David Long, Ph.D., an associate professor in William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business who has worked with organizations and teams to create more engaging work cultures, notes, “This post-Covid time has highlighted what we’ve always known. It’s important for leaders and for organizations to recognize why employees leave and do something about it. We need to keep talent inside our organizations.”

Long points to five elements that organizations can implement to retain employees and ensure they have happy, fulfilled work lives. Variety, identity, significance, autonomy and feedback are critical to ensuring that employees have happy, fulfilled work lives. Let’s explore these elements and how leaders can leverage them to create meaningful work.

Increasing Job Satisfaction and Employee Engagement

The five elements noted above lend themselves to better employee satisfaction and engagement, which can go a long way in better employee retention.


As Apple co-founder Steve Jobs put it, “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”2 If employees don’t love what they do, they are going to hit the road. On the other hand, if managers can give them more of what they love to do, that provides them with a good reason to stick around.

According to a Kern-Ferry survey, a top reason employees stay at a job is if the work is challenging and rewarding.3 A former manager at Home Depot, Long says if work is going to be meaningful for employees, it must also be intrinsically challenging. To that end, managers need to provide opportunities for employees to try out different roles and build new relationships with co-workers they haven’t collaborated with before.

If you’re a restaurant manager, why not stir things up? Maybe some of your servers are interested in culinary careers or haven’t had a chance to sample your best dishes. Have them put on their chefs’ hats for a day and learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. Managers in any industry can offer different pathways for employees to acquire knowledge, grow their skill sets and assume new job responsibilities.


Identity involves an employee finishing a piece of work and then being able to clearly identify the outcome. Motivated employees are more likely to take ownership of a task from start to finish. Task identity is related to other elements like skill variety, autonomy and feedback.

It’s important for managers to pay attention to whether their teams are suffering from low task identity, because research shows that contributes to low engagement and motivation.4 If certain team members cannot remain on a project until the end, communication channels are a great way to stay in touch, showcase the final product and celebrate team successes.


Meaningful work means employees contribute to a larger purpose or mission and get to see the tangible contributions they have made to others and society. If you’re a teacher or trainer, maybe you have had students return to share with you how much your class changed their lives or influenced their career paths. But what about cashiers, call center workers and others whose impact is not always visible?

Managers can find creative ways to help these workers see that their contributions matter. Take the case of a leader of a college call center staffed with volunteers. One day, he brought in the scholarship recipients who benefited from the volunteers’ work soliciting donations. The recipients thanked the volunteers and recognized the impact of their work.5 When employees feel connected to a company’s mission, amazing things can happen. Meaningful work improves employees’ motivation, psychological well-being and productivity, which leads to a more successful and sustainable business.


Autonomy is a key driver of happiness at work. It might be challenging for organizations to give employees freedom, especially at a time when workplaces are navigating new hybrid and remote work models. If you’re an employee, independence—the ability to take ownership of projects and get the job done—is critical to your success and to the company’s success.

Consider the case of 3M’s Art Fry, an American inventor and scientist. If it hadn’t been for 3M’s program allowing employees to spend 15% of their time on pet projects, he might not have invented the Post-it note as we know it.6


When you think of feedback, you might imagine a meeting with your boss where you find out if you’ve done a good job or when a customer thanks you for your help. But here, we want to think about the work itself offering the feedback. For example, many artists work alone on self-defined projects. A musician may listen to a recording and decide the harmony isn’t quite right or a lyric should be changed.

Organizations can offer a flexible structure for employees to not only assess their own work, but also to pursue projects that they are passionate about. Such a structure supports employees’ professional growth and can help them identify the type of work where they can have the most impact.

Personal Development

One way to retain high performers and attract new talent is by offering learning and growth opportunities. Engaging work cultures are interested in employees’ goals and aspirations and provide them with pathways to upskill, explore new roles and advance their careers. Diverse companies, from strappy startups to global organizations, seek passionate people who are communicators and collaborators and are willing to invest in that talent.

Companies like Amazon, SAS and Marriott International are known for attracting top talent because of their development and training programs, which range from career mentoring to job-related seminars and conferences.7 Such opportunities allow employees to grow as leaders and also build networks outside the company.

Employee Benefits

On top of the five elements of work satisfaction, workers’ contentment with their benefits is directly tied to their overall job happiness and performance. About 59% of employees who are happy at work are also satisfied with their benefits.8 Comprehensive health coverage, retirement savings plans and paid time off top the list of benefits employees want their employer to provide. Many parents and caregivers, especially women, left their jobs during the pandemic due to conflicts between work and family.

Companies realize they need to do a better job of supporting their employees’ well-being if they want to retain them and also attract new talent, notes Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com. “They’ve recognized that employee benefits can be life-changing for their workforce, especially those centered around care, flexibility, and mental health,” he said.9

Leadership Skills: What Can an MBA Do for You?

At William & Mary Mason School of Business, we strive to be on the forefront of best business practices. We are interested in helping our students grow into leaders and equip them with the knowledge and tools necessary to change lives and improve workplaces. If that sounds interesting to you, consider William & Mary’s online MBA program.

Additionally, go deeper on job satisfaction by watching the video, “Five Strategies to Drive Employee Engagement and Boost Morale.” Hear from Associate Professor David Long as he goes in depth on the importance of creating a more engaged team, extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, the five elements of job satisfaction and building a culture of engagement.